The podcast was produced for the Kavli Award by Scientific American custom media, which is a department independent of the magazine’s editorial board.
Megan Hall: Without the work of Dr. Gerd Binnig, nanoscience today would not have been possible. He and his colleagues invented the first tool to observe and manipulate objects as small as atoms.
In 1986, Dr. Binnig shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for designing a scanning tunneling microscope. Later in 2016, he shared the Kavli Nanoscience Prize for the invention of the atomic force microscope. Both of these discoveries have had a transformative impact on nanoscience.
Scientific American Custom Media partnered with the Kavli Prize to reconnect with Gerd to discuss how his work enables people to see and create things that once only existed in our imagination.
Before Gerd Binnig, scientists didn’t really understand the behavior of atoms.
Goldbinning: There are many theories. And there are many indirect methods trying to observe matter on the atomic scale.
hall: But no one can actually Look Those atoms.
Binning: If you can observe atoms, you can test your theories and you can come up with ideas. Otherwise, you will be completely blind and you will not know what you are doing.
hall: So Gerd and his colleagues set out to build a machine that would make these observations possible.
First, they invented something called scanning tunneling microscope or STM. It uses electricity to create images of atoms.
Binning: This has undoubtedly triggered the illusion of many people: Now, for the first time, you can see the atomic structure of any kind of conductive material, and you can also disrupt atoms and manipulate it.
hall: Although Gerd and his colleagues won the Nobel Prize for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope, he was not satisfied.
STM can only work on conductive surfaces. He wanted to create a device that could also work with atoms on other surfaces.
Binning: Asking this question, my brain is tortured. STM is so successful, but it is so limited. So I tortured my brain. Then it came up with logical ideas time and time again. They are all crazy and can’t work.
hall: But Gerd said that when he tortured his brain with logic, his subconscious was working in the background.
Binning: It always follows my idea. Suddenly, it spit out a solution.
hall: It happened while Gade was lying on the sofa and looking up at the ceiling.
Binning: Sometimes you can look at the clouds and see things that don’t exist. You can see a horse or something. This is what I did. I saw a cantilever with a tip and a spring on the ceiling.
hall: What he saw looked a lot like a turntable: the arm hanging on the surface, the tip was very thin.
Binning: It’s like a turntable, the needle just moves along the contour of the surface. Then you record this movement of the tip and make an image from it. In a record player, you don’t make a superficial image, but you hear music, but it’s very similar.
hall: Of course, it is not exactly like a turntable. For example, the arm is made of extremely soft material, so small that it is almost invisible to the naked eye. It can also pick up atoms with a tip.
But the first prototype of Gerd’s new idea really started with a needle in a turntable.
Binning: We took a hammer and smashed the needle into small pieces. Then we picked a small piece from it, which looked a bit like a pointed tip, and glued it to a small cantilever we built.
hall: This forearm with shattered needle fragments was the first version of what came to be known as Atomic Force Microscope or AFM. It opened up the world of nanoscience.
Binning: It has indeed inspired many great and smart people to further develop this technology.
hall: In 2016, Gerd and his colleagues won the Kavli Nanoscience Prize for this invention.
Atomic force microscopes allow scientists to observe the opening and closing of ion channels, test devices that are too small to be seen, and detect cancer cells based on their hardness—there are countless examples.
Binning: In fact, what excites me the most is the width of the application, so it is used in many different areas. You even use it to make cosmetics and develop cosmetics, which surprised me.
hall: One scientist even used an atomic force microscope to “listen” to the unfolding of proteins.
Binning: For example, when you unfold a protein, the force changes constantly. Every time, it will pulse. If you put it on the speaker, it will make a sound.
hall: Really? So when you unfold proteins, what do they sound like?
Binning: It looks like they are torturing them.
hall: So they are screaming like “Ah ah ah“?
Binning: Yes, something similar.correct [laughs].
hall: These days, Gerd retired. He spends most of his time watching his grandchildren and writing a book on creativity. But he is still thinking about the future of nanoscience.
Gerd said he is waiting for someone to make nanotechnology self-replicating possible.
Binning: How do you use atoms to build a structure on a small scale, then copy it and produce it on a large scale, copying it again and again? And this has not happened yet.
hall: But he believes it will. Gerd never avoids seemingly impossible questions.
He said that the solution usually comes from a dialogue between your brain and your intuition, just like the moment he stares at the ceiling.
Binning: If you are in a very complicated situation, you cannot solve the problem only through logical thinking. Too complicated; it takes years or decades to solve the problem; maybe it will never happen. But intuitively, you can handle complex situations better.
hall: Gerd said that everyone likes to talk about Eureka moments-when the solution finally surfaced.
But all these breakthroughs come from a series of small steps that shuttle between the conscious and subconscious brains. It is this dance that drives real innovation.
Dr. Gerd Binnig is a German physicist and also a Nobel Prize and Kavli Prize winner. In 2016, he shared the Kavli Nanoscience Prize with colleagues Christoph Gerber and Calvin Quate.
Cavley Prize Recognizing scientists who have made breakthroughs in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. The Kavli Award is a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, and the Kavli Foundation in the United States.
This work was produced by the “Scientific American” custom media and was made possible with the support of the Kavli Award.